At 12 years old, Helene Stevens thought her mother had lost it when she bought a five-booth coffee shop in the 1970s. It was as dark as a bar and it was in Sandy — the middle of nowhere at the time.
But Joanne Nielsen needed a job to make money to support her five children. She painted the place yellow and hung kitchen curtains and opened on Valentine’s Day 1971, selling10-cent coffee, and ham and eggs for 95 cents at Johanna’s Kitchen.
By the time Nielsen sold the kitchen in 2001, she had bought the building and the property next door to make room for parking stalls for the 90-seat restaurant she had created.
Nielsen died last week at age 78 from pneumonia.
“She was able to make something out of not much,” said Stevens. “She wanted people to feel like this was their kitchen. They could come there and talk and laugh and have a place they felt like was home.”
The restaurant was a second home for the Nielsen children, Stevens said. Her mother was working so many hours — she didn’t let anyone else cook for the first 10 years — that they had to go to the restaurant to see her.
The children’s favorite breakfast, teddy bear pancakes, showed up on the menu. The children also worked there. It’s where Stevens met her husband and where they got married. Their daughter met her future husband at the kitchen, too.
After Nielsen stopped cooking in the kitchen, she oversaw catering and got involved in the Sandy Chamber of Commerce. She also signed each box of Thanksgiving pie, Stevens said.
“She always had that personal touch. That was really, really important to her,” Stevens said. “She had that great positive, what-you-put-out-comes-back attitude. She wanted people to feel great. … Her restaurant reflected it.”
James Marshall remembers skipping classes at Alta High in 1982 and going to Johanna’s Kitchen. “It was the only place open back then,” he said. He bought it in 2001 and kept the name and her deep-fried scone and raspberry jam recipes. “She worked hard and did a great job of building it from a 12-seat restaurant to a 90-seat restaurant,” he said.
Nielsen is survived by her five children, 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Family and friends will celebrate her life from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the restaurant, 9725 S. State St., Sandy.